A Comparative Sociolinguistic Study  

Summary and Conclusion

Summary of U.S. Address Behavior

In order to give an overview, I will try to summarize (and thus also generalize) the American students' address behavior. For all statements made below, it is important to keep in mind that they are based on the address behavior of a restricted sample (students, mostly in their early twenties). Therefore the conclusions drawn do not necessarily have to be valid for address in American English as a whole. Overall, we can say that the U.S. informants included in this survey agreed on how to use most forms of address mentioned. With regard to the majority of terms and sample situations, their answers therefore did set up a standard against which the German and Kyrgyz results can be analyzed. As the answers to several questions showed, the conditions of usage for "Miss," "Mrs.," and above all "Ms." were the only notable exceptions to this rule. Taking into account all data collected from American informants, some general tendencies concerning these terms can nevertheless be observed. In spoken language, "Miss" is an appropriate option for addressing a young female (about 20; unmarried or unknown marital status), but not a married woman. A considerable number of informants, though not a majority, also used it towards women of advanced age in order to politely imply youth. Consequently, the use of "Mrs." to address females of advanced age had a negative connotation for some American students. Basically, the term was only considered fully appropriate for addressing a married woman. In most cases, the American informants were divided about the neutral form "Ms." It only received a majority vote in official written documents, for addressing a (not too young) woman of unknown marital status and, interestingly enough, for addressing a woman holding an academic title. All three terms seem to be more usual in combination with a last name, but were also rated appropriate on their own by many informants. "Ma'am" is apparently the best choice to address an unknown female (a little less common, but ok towards young women), while "girl," "madam," and "lady" seem to play little or no role in the everyday usage of terms of address in the United States. "Sir" is more or less a male parallel to "ma'am" in that it is used towards unknown, but not too young men. "Man" and, to a lesser extent, "dude," seem ok towards young males only, while "boy" is not used at all. "Mr." is a common address combined with last name, but seems somewhat disputed when used on its own. Either way, it is more likely to be used towards elders. Like in the case of its three female counterparts ("Miss," "Mrs.," and "Ms."), however, an academic title (plus last name) is preferable when known. Contrary to that, whether an occupational title like "waitress" is to be considered polite seemed debatable. Even more so, the utterance "Hey, you" was generally rated inappropriate. The use of first name towards an elder and/or superior usually requires an explicit invitation, while the zero form (i.e. not using a term of address, but e.g. just "Hi" or "Excuse me") is a safe choice in a variety of situations. However, the data indicates that other, more personalized variants (above all in combination with last name) are perceived as more polite. As far as addressing groups or unspecified individuals is concerned, the most common options are "guys" (informal) and "Ladies and Gentlemen" (formal) in spoken language and "Dear Sir or Madam" and "To whom it may concern" in formal written documents.

Summary of German Answers

Although German answers were frequently in accordance with native speaker results, a few notable deviations occurred. Most importantly, the German informants underestimated the relevance and versatile applicability of the term "ma'am" in American English and frequently used "madam" instead. Obviously, not using a term (in this case "ma'am") is not a major communicative problem in itself, but as far as addressing unknown women is concerned, it at least seems like there are only less appropriate (hence likely less polite) alternatives in the majority of cases. Using a term like "madam," which is practically out of use according to U.S. results, is not necessarily offending, but might contribute to an undesirable image of its user (imagine, for example, a job interview situation) by sounding stiff and old-fashioned1. With regard to "Ms.," it seems like many informants where a little insecure about how and when to use it - which is understandable because, in some situations, the same was the case with the U.S. informants. However, it was notable that few German students recognized this term as the norm for official written documents - at least as long as the marital status of the person addressed is unknown, like in many business situations. "Miss" and "Mrs." were interpreted rather traditionally, i.e. the first meaning young and/or unmarried and the second elder2 and/or married. The American notion of using "Miss" to implicitly compliment a woman of advanced age on looking young did not occur to the German informants. In addition to these different perceptions, it seems like "Hey, you" sounds far less impolite too German than to American ears. According to U.S. results, it is not recommendable to use such a form of address (which a considerable number of Germans marked as appropriate). Apart from these observations, a slightly stronger tendency towards using "Mr." plus last name instead of "Dr." or "Prof." plus last name was the only other deviation from the U.S. norm. This is probably due to the analogous use of German "Herr" (meaning 'Mr.') plus last name, which is a perfectly acceptable way of addressing university professors.

Summary of Kyrgyz Answers

Contrary to the German informants, the Kyrgyz students had little trouble using "ma'am" appropriately on occasions where a vast majority of Americans evaluated it a as good choice. However, the Kyrgyz informants seemingly considered "ma'am" to be restricted to elders3. Just like the Germans, on the other hand, they frequently marked "madam" as appropriate although the U.S. students did not think so in any instance of the survey. To a lesser extent, the same goes for "lady," which has apparently acquired a rather negative connotation in American English4. Using "madam" or "lady" inappropriately might not have terrible consequences in many everyday situations. Nevertheless, it can add a notch to a negative image of the non-native speaker just at the wrong time, especially if he or she masters the language well otherwise. Additionally, the informants from Kyrgyzstan seemed insecure about the usage and the functions of "Ms." Most notably, they did not recognize it as the standard in official written documents either, and most even replaced it by "Miss" or "Mrs." in spoken language examples when the marital status of the woman addressed was unknown (in these cases, the Americans only preferred "Miss" to "Ms." for addressing very young women). Also in accordance with the other non-native speaking informants, the Kyrgyz rather strictly interpreted "Miss" as young and/or unmarried and "Mrs." as elder and/or married, thus not including the subtleties of U.S. usage (see above). Besides, the Kyrgyz informants' reluctance to use a zero form ("Hey") towards persons of advanced age (as well as females) indicates that their cultural notions of age differ from the Americans' ideas. In short, it is debatable in how far they would want to (conventionally) compliment somebody on looking young (e.g. by using "Miss" like some U.S. informants) 5. Apart from these observations, two other things were noteworthy about the results obtained. Firstly, the informants displayed an enormous variation in trying to come up with an appropriate phrase for addressing groups or unspecified individuals in official written documents. While they had at least a passive knowledge of "Dear Sir or Madam," the Americans' favorite "To whom it may concern" (or at least its conditions of usage) was obviously unknown to the vast majority of students from Kyrgyzstan. Instead, some used "Dear sir," which is problematic due to its lack of gender neutrality. In business contexts, if not any written document, one should be careful not use such politically incorrect forms of address. Presumably, the issue of gender neutrality is not as prevalent in Kyrgyz culture, but it definitely has to be taken into account when speaking or especially writing in American English. In addition to this issue, another "face-threatening" (i.e. potentially offending, see The Project) pragmatic mistake occurred. Almost half of the informants considered "boy" an appropriate address for a 20-year-old male. Not only did all U.S. students mark "boy" as inappropriate, but it can also be interpreted as especially offensive when used towards African American males6.


Being one of the initial steps in any conversation, address is the first chance to make a good impression. If used inappropriately, however, it can also contribute to a negative image of the speaker by sounding stiff, awkward, or ignorant. Even worse, some mistakes can directly offend or insult the person addressed. The higher the non-native speaker's fluency and the situation's degree of formality are, the more crucial it becomes to avoid these pragmatic mistakes. A job interview, for instance, is one of the most obvious situations in which you don't want to make a bad impression. As we have seen, however, the usage of terms of address in American English is more complex than one might think. On the other hand, it is nevertheless rule-governed. Although no non-native speaker can be expected to know all the subtleties of the system, a general competence for most situations is definitely attainable. Since textbooks, even the few that cover pragmatic fields like address to an extended degree, only reflect the state of the language at one point, it is crucial to always try and acquire up-to-date information about the target culture. In other words, foreign language teaching (not only concerning address) has to take language change into account because language is a dynamic, not a static, phenomenon. I hope that the results of this project will help some non-native speakers to "update" their usage of terms of address in American English. Therefore I would like to invite all teachers of English to use the materials presented here to for their classes. Finally, I would like to encourage all teachers and learners of English to take a look at other important aspects of pragmatic competence also, for example opening and closing a conversation or backchannelling7. Suggestions for teaching these subjects of underestimated importance can be found in several articles of this site's Bibliography8.

1 As mentioned before, whether "madam" is used and perceived differently in Great Britain is not the question here since the questionnaire was set in an exclusively American context.

2 from students' point of view, i.e. roughly above 30

3 from students' point of view, i.e. roughly above 30

4 See also Whitcut, Janet. "The Language of Address" (1980), p.93. Like "madam," "lady" used to be a very polite form of address.

5 These notions and how they are reflected in language might offer an interesting field for further, more thorough investigation.

6 Apparently because African American males were often pejoratively addressed like that in the course of history, e.g. by white slave owners. However, that is an information I could not fully assess.

7 I.e. the "feedback" you give while your conversational partner is talking, e.g. "Right," "Mhm," a nod, or the like.

8 above all in Kasper, Gabriele. "Can Pragmatic Competence be taught?" (1997) and Edwards, Melinda and Kata Csizér. "Developing Pragmatic Competence in the EFL Classroom" (2004).